© Copyright 2017 Alison Lee, Ryerson University.
True Lies: Hollywood’s Misrepresentation of the Middle East
Recent news regarding the refugee crisis and the travel ban being implemented by the Trump administration has led me to seriously consider the ways in which a whole culture has been represented by mass media. I used to think that the negative attitude towards Middle Eastern people, or more specifically Muslims, began after 9/11. However, after much research I have come to understand that in fact, these attitudes have been perpetuated for a much longer time than I initially thought. There are many factors behind this fear and it is evident that films are partially responsible for this perception. Films have been and continue to be one of the most influential mediums in our culture and I believe Hollywood has played a major role in shaping the ways in which people view a particular region. The circulation of stereotypes found in films has been harmful and has contributed to a xenophobia that applies exclusively to Muslims. I have thus attempted to illustrate the irrationality of the misrepresentation of Middle Eastern people in film, by creating a mosaic comprised of photos of actual citizens located in that region, some photos of refugees, as well as a few photos of Muslims located in other countries. These photos make up a larger portrait, that of the terrorist in the film True Lies (1994). My aim has been to convey to an audience how a prevailing image of the Middle East has rendered a more accurate image of the Middle East invisible.
Mosaic found here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B8fZF4gJaxJ-NjFDZmlfTk41SmM
Gathering of photographs
At the start of my process, I thought gathering images would be rather simple. Yet, the need to find photographs that I had permission to use made it more difficult. To make things easier, I used the creative commons search engine to find these photos. I also realized that I had no definite knowledge of which countries were considered to be in the Middle East, and so I created a list based on Google’s search results. This list consists of: Syria, Israel, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Cyprus, Oman, and the State of Palestine. What surprised me is that Pakistan and Afghanistan were not considered part of the Middle East, but rather part of South Asia. Consequently, I found out about the Bush administration’s idea of the Great Middle East and wondered if I should include these two countries. In the end, I did not include them, save for the photo of Abdul Sattar Edhi, a Pakistani humanitarian, because I wanted to stay true to the “established” notion of the Middle East, not one imposed by external opinions such as America. I am not quite sure if I made the right decision here, as I also did not want to risk ignoring a significant portion of people that might identify as Middle Eastern themselves.
It was not easy to find photos that were simultaneously open for creative use and that were adequate for my purposes. Certain countries did not yield any results that fit my criteria; I was mostly looking for images that displayed everyday life in order to humanize the people that were being scrutinized in the West. Of course, I could not disregard refugees and looked for images that showed their struggle. Even though I knew my intentions were in the right place, I could not help but feel as if I were exploiting their hardships in using these images. Therefore, I tried to limit my use and again, I am not sure this was the right decision given the urgency of their situation.
Creating the mosaic
To create the mosaic, I set myself a goal of obtaining at least a hundred photos. I knew I wanted much more than a hundred, but the time needed and the time I had did not permit me to find much more; I ended up with 134 images (all cited in a separate document here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1jCi_rY2kqX5AOQQpjbmoZzQ1vHn6xSiLLurSzuGcets/edit?usp=sharing and uploaded here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0B8fZF4gJaxJ-NG5ZTzhfN0xVTW8?usp=sharing if anyone is interested in going straight to the sources).
The result of having only this many images was a somewhat repetitive mosaic. Not only were the images being repeated within the mosaic, but the overall picture was not as clear as I had hoped. I was a little disappointed and I felt conflicted about whether or not my mosaic would be efficient in communicating the message I was trying to relay. Despite this, I do think the mosaic form is adequate for this critical analysis of the stereotypes about the Middle East. Due to how the larger picture obscures the smaller ones, this parallels how Hollywood film narratives have obscured the less prominent narratives of a Middle Eastern reality. Moreover, the viewer has the choice of either viewing the mosaic from afar or zooming in to see the individual stories embedded within. This choice can then be paralleled with how the public can actively choose to continue depending on surface impressions or to look for more meaningful ways of seeing.
Hollywood’s role in constructing an inaccurate picture
Hollywood’s impact on how the general public views Middle Eastern people as alien can be witnessed in recent events such as the attack on a mosque in Montreal and the anti-Muslim protest in Toronto. Primarily illustrated as terrorists in film after film, this “distorted [lense] [has] shown Arabs as heartless, brutal, uncivilized, religious fanatics” with only about “five percent of Arab film roles depict[ing] normal, human characters” (Shaheen 171). Is it any wonder that a portion of Western audiences have taken this inaccurate portrayal as anything but factual? In Klaus Dodds’ study about how Hollywood screens terror, he asserts that “we should not assume that audiences are incapable of making sophisticated judgements about terrorism, even if the films in question provide little guiding contextual material” (228). His assertion refers to the fact that the perception of terrorism is “socially constructed by viewers themselves” through exposure to different sources of information, such as mass media (Dodds 229). If Dodds’ statement is taken to be true, then it stands that the people behind the distribution of misinformation should be held accountable. The mosaic is an attempt at revealing this injustice of misrepresenting an entire population, and an attempt to confront the comforting aspect of stereotypes (Shaheen 189). By showing a more humanized perspective through various scenes of Middle Eastern life, hopefully viewers will come to contemplate their own understanding or opinion of those who have been deemed inhuman by systemic powers.
How Hollywood misleads about history
There are a number of historical events that have influenced Hollywood’s recurring narratives around the Middle East and frequently, films will essentially rewrite history. According to Jack G. Shaheen, “Often, producers falsify geopolitical realities. During WWII many Arab nations actively supported the Allies… Yet, most movies fail to show Arabs fighting alongside the good guys” (182). In this regard, I would have liked to have included images that depicted Middle Eastern involvement as Shaheen describes as fighting with the good guys. However, I was apprehensive about the potential of people misconstruing those images, thereby causing them to dismiss the rest of the images. Although in hindsight, I think this might have been a mistake on my part. At any rate, by displaying the Middle East as a constant enemy, Hollywood has helped to secure an aversion to their people. Shaheen contends that things became worse in the 1990s: “Two major events, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait that led to the Gulf War, and the bombing of New York City’s World Trade Center, combined to create [a] misguided mindset, leading some Americans to believe all Arabs are terrorists” (189). Hollywood has fed on such occurrences and has chosen to forego more nuanced approaches to storytelling, instead relying on promoting the West as the ultimate do-gooders.
How Hollywood misleads about a people
In addition to the one-sided portrayal of history, there has been ignorance of the make-up and culture of the Middle East on the part of filmmakers. Shaheen states, “[M]ost of the world’s 1.1 billion Muslims are Indonesian, Indian, or Malaysian. Only 12 percent of the world’s Muslims are Arab. Yet, moviemakers ignore this reality, depicting Arabs and Muslims as one and the same people” (174). Mehdi Semati, in his examination of Islamaphobia, elaborates, “Although the population of Arab Americans is highly diverse in terms of national origins and ancestry, religious background, and phenotypes… a monolithic image of Arab Americans in the popular imagination persists” (264). The question that comes to mind is why is it more readily accepted that in the West, there are also diverse groups who believe in various forms of religion and come from different backgrounds? Semati points out, “Just as there is not one Christianity, we should not speak of one Islam” (258). The insistence on lumping a wide range of people into a single group, as has been done with the Middle East, is quite simply unreasonable, regardless of location. With the mosaic, I have tried to illustrate the diversity of the Middle East by gathering photos from all over the region, of ordinary people doing ordinary things, to show how these photos can act as sites for recognition of humanity, which are in direct opposition to the singular vision of a people as perpetuated by Hollywood.
The implications of misrepresentation
The main consequence of Hollywood’s misrepresentation of the Middle East is the “othering” of its people, which effects both the general public’s and the Middle Eastern’s mindset. Middle Eastern citizens residing in countries outside their country of origin can be seen as literal outsiders, unwelcome and dismissed. David Kim and Ronald Sundstrom call this civic ostracism (21). Even with those that reside in their countries of origin or those fleeing, there seems to be a fixed separation between “us” and “them”. Kim and Sundstrom propose that “[c]ivic inclusion is a social good because its possession gives a person the kind of agency” that allows one to feel accepted and fulfilled (24). This kind of autonomy should not be kept from a specific set of people based solely on a generalization; it should be a right for all. The potential marginalization caused by xenophobia can have a lasting impact on the youth of the targeted group especially, in that their ability to participate in their community is diminished (Semati 270). Taking away this ability would be detrimental to the personal growth of these affected youths and would be another wrong committed by misrepresentation. Through photos of the refugee crisis, my hope was to evoke empathy, sympathy, and compassion for fellow human beings, as well as to convey the absurdity of the alienation that comes with making a sweeping statement about a people, as Hollywood appears to do.
Although it has been implied, it is important to mention that True Lies is merely one example in a list of many films that have contributed to the careless portrayals of the Middle East. Shaheen’s study in particular is a valuable source for the exploration of such films. I believe it is crucial to emphasize that the comfort provided by stereotypes must be challenged in order to bring about a change in attitudes, and with the mosaic, this is what I hope to do. I want to point out that I do not claim to be an expert on this subject manner in any way, and recognize the limitations of my knowledge. I have only touched upon the surface of the issue and hope to raise questions about how a certain image becomes normalized by the repetition of that image, and how this image can incite a misplaced phobia. As a final note, I refer to Shaheen’s insistence as a disclaimer for those who may have reservations about any of the points made here: “I am not saying an Arab should never be portrayed as the villain. What I am saying is that almost all Hollywood depictions of Arabs are bad ones. This is a grave injustice” (176). Hollywood has the capability, and frankly an obligation, to produce fair representation of Middle Eastern people, or any people for that matter, and this remains to be seen.
Ankara. “Bakdash ice cream shop in the old souk in Damascus.” Wikimedia Commons, 27 July 2009, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bakdash_ice-cream_shop_in_the_old_souk_in_Damascus.jpg. Accessed 12 March 2017.
Dodds, Klaus. “Screening terror: Hollywood, the United States and the construction of danger.” Critical Studies on Terrorism, vol. 1, no. 2, 2008, pp. 227-243.
Kim, David Haekwon and Sundstrom, Ronald R. “Xenophobia and Racism.” Critical Philosophy of Race, vol. 2, no. 1, 2014, pp. 20-45.
Lee, Alison. “Still from True Lies.” 31 March 2017.
Semati, Mehdi. “Islamaphobia, Culture and Race in the Age of Empire.” Cultural Studies, vol. 24, no. 2, 2010, pp. 256-275.
Shaheen, Jack G. “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.” The Annals of the American Academy, 2003, pp. 171-193.
True Lies. Directed by James Cameron, 1994.
Zohrevand, Hosein. “Presidential election in Damascus.” Wikimedia Commons, 3 June 2014, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2014_Syrian_presidential_election_day_in_Damascus_(6).jpg. Accessed 12 March 2017.
Images in this online exhibit are either in the public domain or being used under fair dealing for the purpose of research and are provided solely for the purposes of research, private study, or education.